Much has been written on North Korea and its infamous leader Kim Jong-un. He has proven to be an unstable, brutal and erratic dictator whose pension for control, power, and attention could be enough to push him over the nuclear weapon’s edge. The problem is a nuclear attack by North Korea, on anyone, would be a disastrous event that would involve more than just North Korea and their target, it would affect the whole region and drag much of the world into a conflict…literally, a global event.
Understanding this, how do we curb the North Korean leader’s ambitions? In what manner do we convince a young, inexperienced, power hungry, and closed-minded narcissist to stop? Do we encourage him, pamper him, or sanction him into submission? Or is it better to threaten him?
Well, we do have President Trump. A new face to geopolitics and handling rogue nations. Yet, Trump’s most recent rhetoric seems cartoonish in nature, much like we hear from other closed and oppressive societies…aka Iran, Venezuela, or Cuba…not a sophisticated U.S. Further, if you ask any seasoned diplomat they would say Trump’s rhetoric is downright dangerous…but is it?
Is tough rhetoric what Kim Jong-un needs? A language he understands? A threat that is straight forward and more importantly from an American president whose history of “what he says” is “what he does.” Maybe this is just what the doctor ordered? In other words, “fight fire with fire.”
And, more importantly, is there more to this tough rhetoric and is it really meant for someone else?
So far, has anything worked?
The simple answer is no. Previous attempts to keep Kim Jong-un’s sights off nukes have all failed. For decades, the U.S. went through diplomatic channels, UN security council sanctions (five of them to date), and countless negotiations. For example, the “Six Party Talks” launched in 2003, were designed to de-escalate North Korea’s nuclear development. However, by 2009, North Korea had walked out of negotiations, and a year later, “revealed a vast new uranium enrichment facility to visiting U.S. scientists.”
Even recent diplomatic attempts by the previous administration, such as a “strategic patience” approach designed to pressure North Korea back to the “Six Party Talk,” failed to produce anything. On the contrary, North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions increased since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011. For example, under his rule, “the country has carried out more than seventy-five missile tests, far exceeding the trials of his father and grandfather before him.”
So, encouraging, incentivizing and punishing him hasn’t worked. What else is there?
The solution may be hidden in some questions
Is Kim Jong-un really a problem…he talks crazy but why pay attention to him? Is he a strategic threat to the U.S…meaning, can he threaten our survival? Do we need a fresh approach…everything in the past seems to have failed? And, where is China…a powerful neighbor and longtime supporter of the regime?
To begin, Kim Jong-un is a problem…here’s why
He is not crazy, nor was his father. Kim Jong-un might be a little unstable with respect to current global standards of behavior, but North Korea is not part of the global community. They are a closed society. A communistic, oppressive and dictatorial culture that seems to be stuck in the Cold War era…economically, figuratively and behaviorally. However, the danger in all this is the fact that Kim Jong-un has complete control of information and the narrative inside his country. A propaganda machine that is unmatched and a propensity to practice brutal loyalty. In other words, the North Korean people believe him, adore him, but also fear him.
OK, so what? A crazy guy who leads a devoted flock? What’s the problem?
Let’s look at some history. We only need to review the behavior of past dictators to see the real peril in this young man. Brutal rulers such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and even Alexander the Great, to name a few, also led a devoted flock. And they murdered millions both inside and outside their borders, convincing the faithful populous to believe in and fear their barbarous ways.
But the common and most concerning thread among these creatures was that they completely controlled their population…some of it viciously but most of it willingly. How did they achieve such unchallengeable influence and power?
The answer is brilliantly deceptive.
Their faithful flock believed because they were the recipient of a carefully crafted narrative of victimization. Rulers led them to think that someone or something outside of their country was viciously threatening their well-being. This belief was a captivating leash that provided them an excuse for provocation and expansion.
For example, Alexander the Great used the Persian onslaught of Greece to help garner Greek support for his conquests. Hitler used post-WWI persecution of Germany as a primary theme for Germany’s resurgence, retribution, and support. While Mao used the Japanese’s brutal occupation, and afterward Chiang Kai Shek’s corrupt leadership, to unite his followers…dictators create an atmosphere of victimization.
Alright, he creates a victimized culture. How does this become a U.S. problem? Why doesn’t someone else fight this battle?
Think about it? Who does Kim Jong-un demonize by creating fictional devilish tales of barbaric and oppressive ways? Who is this imperialistic victimizer seeking control of North Korea’s wealth and their people? Well, you guessed it, it’s the United States. To most people in North Korea, America is their sworn enemy and a danger to their survival.
The United States is Kim Jong-un’s antagonist which he uses as a fraudulent shield for authority and ambition…a brutish portrait that has been carefully crafted for decades. For example, Kim Jong-Il (Kim Jong-un’s father) stated, “Imperialist aid [U.S.] is a noose of plunder and subjugation, aimed at robbing 10 and even 100 things for one thing that is given.” And recently, in 2015, Je Son Lee, a North Korean defector and former writer for North Korean News, provided an example of today’s propaganda demonizing the U.S., “The North Korean regime claims that US soldiers tore off the limbs of innocent Koreans and cut off eyes, noses, and lips and hung them on the trees.”
This puts the bullseye right on America’s forehead.
Let’s stop for a second. Remember our problem statement, the guy has a nuke pointed at someone and he appears just crazy enough to use it? Further, he has no checks and balances and the decision to launch resides solely with him…this is a problem, and it has become America’s problem. However, as much as this appears a significant dilemma, is there something more concerning? What could possibly be worse than a crazy guy with a nuke who wants to destroy America?
If we get religious, we can see the real danger in Kim Jong-un
North Korea has all the indications of a belief system…almost religious in nature. The regime has convinced the people that America is the demon out to destroy them and that North Korea’s survival depends on Kim Jong-un. This type of “demon and savior” portrayal creates unquestionable faith and is often used to justify expansion and provocation such as expanding his nuclear arsenal and provoking the world with missile tests.
And it gets worse, North Korea is a country built for war. With a quarter of their GDP spent on the military (the U.S spends 4%) and an almost 2 million men standing army as well as 25% of its population trained as paramilitary, North Korea is a nation ready to do battle. Kim Jong-un does not need a nuke to wreak havoc…if he says to cross the border and attack, they will…and the effect will be far more catastrophic.
Is Kim Jong-un a strategic threat to the U.S.? Is America’s survival at stake?
The straightforward answer is no! Most Americans do not understand what a strategic threat to our nation means. I will provide a plain answer, “a strategic threat is any capability, action or intent that threatens the survival of the U.S.” Well, wait a minute, Kim Jong-un has threatened the U.S. and he does possess nuclear warheads. As he stated himself, “it [intercontinental ballistic missile] is a gift to American bastards.”
But, does he possess the capability to threaten our existence…no. North Korea may possess nukes but they still cannot miniaturize, mate and launch a nuclear warhead capable of hitting U.S. territory. But, he still is a threat, he is just not a strategic threat. And any threat to the U.S. requires very close scrutiny and some type of solution, as North Korea demonstrated by announcing plans to test missiles aimed at Guam (a U.S. territory).
OK, so what type of threat is he? Is a pre-emptive strike in order?
So far, we have demonstrated that Kim Jong-un is a deceiving and brutish dictator who controls his people and loves waving his nuclear stick in our face. But what cannot get lost here is the distinction between a strategic threat and just a threat…words mean things and each is handled fundamentally different.
In other words, the type of response to a “strategic threat” v. just a “threat” could be the difference between a “nuclear exchange” and more “sanctions.” For example, terrorism is a threat to the U.S. but you don’t see us nuking ISIS or Al Qaeda. However, we have responded to them, and in a big way, but to their attacks, and I emphasize “attacks.” North Korea has not attacked the U.S.
And even though North Korea constitutes a legitimate threat, a preemptive or unprovoked attack is foolishness and dangerous. In addition, an attack by the U.S. would only fuel North Korea’s propaganda and justification for a response, potentially legitimizing a global condemnation of the U.S…a lose-lose policy.
So, we have established Kim Jong-un as a threat and a pre-emptive strike is out of the question, what can be done?
So far, a tempered diplomacy, numerous UN security council sanctions, and global condemnation seem to have done little. Kim Jong-un continues to march unabated toward an intercontinental nuclear weapons capability.
Do we need another approach? Something simple and easily understood?
Maybe tough-love is what we need? What I mean is we must make sure the young man knows that our response to an attack on the U.S. will be devastating to his country and that his entire regime will be eliminated. I am not talking political assassination, I am talking the fatal removal of key leadership in retaliation to an unprovoked attack by North Korea…Kim Jong-un will be “six feet under” and he must know this…we must play on his instinct to survive.
He is a dictator, and historically, their will to survive outweighs their will to win.
Ok, some tough love is in order but where is China? Are they the answer to all of this?
Remember earlier we painted a picture of the real catastrophe of North Korean troops crossing the South Korean border? Ponder this statement, “North Korea may not be fighting alone…if they understood they were alone, they may not be the problem they are today.”
What I mean, is that depending on the scenario, China could support North Korea in a conflict. If not directly, then indirectly through enablers and resources. It is not a given that China sees the North Korean problem the same way the U.S. does, or Japan or the UN for that matter.
China is the wild card in this whole situation…they are both the problem and the answer. China could stop Kim Jong-un’s madness very quickly, but for reasons that only China knows, Kim Jong-un remains a critical threat in the region. Here are a few demonstrative reasons why China is the answer:
– China accounts for close to 90% of North Korea’s total trade volume
– China is the largest supplier of food and energy to North Korea
– Trade between China and North Korea has increased from $400M in 2000 to over 6.8B in 2014*
*Interesting to note that these increases have all occurred during the last five UN security council (SCR) resolutions sanctioning North Korea. China has signed only one of the five SCRs (UN SCR 1718) and even that one was revised to sanction only luxury items.
– In the 1st qtr. of 2017, China-North Korea trade was up 37.4% from the same period in 2016. Was this not while Kim Jong-un accelerated his missile testing? Ummm?
– China-North Korea also shares a significant cultural, political and conflict past. Mao Zedong, who lost his son in the Korean war supporting the North, once said that Korea and China are “as close as lips and teeth.”
– And, China-North Korea possesses an 880-mile common border
However, even with these significant factors making China the solution, they are still the problem. They have supported the regime since day one and so far, balked at every UN sanction. China has literally been North Korea’s life support system over the last few decades.
Only recently has China shown a break in their support…and this break appears only political in nature. The main reason China treats this situation so indifferently is that China does not want a regime change…a collapse would mean massive refugees at the Chinese border and an unstable neighbor. Worse, if a conflict breaks out on the Korean peninsula, it would destabilize the entire region drawing China into the conflict..the cost being astronomical…say goodbye to some of that Chinese wealth and power.
The bottom line is, a war on the Korean peninsula would not be good for anyone…especially China and they know it!
As a result, the Chinese have consistently urged restraint by the global community. They have stated numerous times their concern for his dangerous behavior, nuclear weapons ambitions and rhetoric, but “what they say and what they do are two different things.” Much of the problem with China’s posturing is their overall lack of action and possible hidden agendas…to sum this up, if Kim Jong-un’s nukes are not pointed at China, why would they worry…it keeps everyone else busy.
This all must change…
Let’s review what we just laid out. Kim Jong-un is not a strategic threat to the U.S., but he still is a significant threat and it appears we need an innovative approach, one that is tough, and more importantly, one that goes through China. Let’s lay out a direction.
First, make him believe he will lose
North Korea is a closed society with an impressive propaganda machine. It almost appears that he has set up a win-win for him and a no-win for America? How do we change this? Do we have a card to play or something to exploit? Do we have an advantage somewhere?
You bet we do!
He is a dictator and before any dictator will use force outside his territory, he must believe he can win. Think about our history lesson and let’s ask us if any previous dictator, who used force beyond their realm, would have used it if they thought for one moment they would lose? The answer is no! Their survival instincts are too strong.
Yes, a crazy person would do this and sacrifice themselves for some disillusioned cause, but dictators are not crazy…to use force, they must believe they can win. Here is where we take advantage, maybe a rhetoric where the cost of conflict will be great, you will lose and you will be the first to go!
Remember, a harsh ruler only recognizes one thing, force! And you must show him that you mean business, otherwise, an unwavering desire for peace only strengthens their resolve. Maybe “fire and fury” is just what the doctor ordered?
Next, set unwavering red lines
But, not the red lines the previous administration made and never kept, but ones that are realistic and followed…a red line that even a dictator believes. Here are a few that would constitute some type of U.S. response:
– North Korea strikes any U.S territory unprovoked (this includes any U.S. assets)
– North Korea miniaturizes and mates a nuke on an ICBM
– North Korea attacks a U.S. ally
– North Korea increases the number of nuclear warheads above a certain number…whatever would constitute a strategic threat to the U.S.
And finally, the solution goes through China
We must get the Chinese involved. Remember, to the North Korean people, the U.S. is the demon. Kim Jong-un’s entire victimization narrative is built around the U.S…take us out of the lead and insert China, and he no longer can justify to his people his nuclear weapons ambitions. Further, China and North Korea’s history, geography, trade reliance and cultural similarities are too important to deny.
Even if China prefers a solution with Kim Jong-un retaining power, they are still the key player in curtailing his nuclear weapons desires. To get China on board, the U.S. must apply the same level of pressure as they put on North Korea. A tough stance, some threatening rhetoric and an approach that no longer placates to their non-involvement and deceitful ways. As Trump threatened a few weeks ago, “you [China] take care of this or we [the U.S.] will.”
Any rogue regime who possesses nuclear warheads is bad…very bad…and must be dealt with. The challenge with a rogue North Korea is the fact that they are not part of the global community. They are a closed society and do not adhere to condemnations or UN resolutions. Kim Jong-un controls the narrative inside his country and more importantly, the will of his people. Previous attempts to get the North Korean regime to halt their nuclear ambitions have all but failed.
North Korea continues to march-on uncontested to a global nuclear weapons capability.
And if the world is somehow waiting for someone to willingly step in and take care of this problem, we could be waiting a very long time…and time is not on our side. Even though the U.S. must continue to pressure North Korea, the real solution runs through China.
We must emphasize to the Chinese that it is in their best interest to keep peace on the Korean peninsula. The same pressure we use on North Korea to halt their dangerous nuclear desire is the same pressure we put on China to partner a solution. China must intercede and pressure Kim Jong-un to de-escalate…they have the means to do it.
The recent strong rhetoric by President Trump is some unusual and challenging language, normally not a part of any diplomatic script. The “shock-like” discord is out of the ordinary, but it’s getting everyone’s attention…sound a little crazy and mean it!! Just enough of intent and action to create suspicion and worry…maybe a way to get North Korea to listen and to get China off their “indifferent” arse and find a solution.
Kim Jong-un may not be a strategic threat today, but left to his own doing, he will be tomorrow!